Oh dear. With Tony Hawk games you're supposed to begin with one of those quick historical rundowns of the previous games in the series, in order that you can file the latest in the correct slot. But it's all got too confusing. So many games. In order to survive this, let's say that this is the first Tony Hawk game for the DS, acknowledge that Vicarious Visions have been porting the series over to Nintendo systems for a good long while, and recognise that there are parallels between American Sk8land and the current big-boy consoles' American Wasteland. And we'll also all agree that things went a bit wonky with the two Underground games, especially the horrid rubbish of THUG 2 and its Jackass-infected non-skateboarding lameness. Phew, eh?
Talking of going a bit wonky, after some absolutely superb GBA conversions of the series, Vicarious itself had a bit of a spaz over the Underground games. That it was able to take the high-fallutin' 3D skateboarding games and convert them into something workable in 2D on the four-button GBA was impressive. That it managed to make them eminently playable games was a thing of wonder. But as Neversoft lost sight of its own franchise, so did the handheld ports.
But as with so many, it seems, the challenge of coding for the DS has given Vicarious a fresh charge of enthusiasm and imagination, and what we've ended up with here is a unique entry into the Hawk series, and one that's really rather lovely.
Enjoying Vicarious Success
The different title is indicative of quite what a deviation from the console version this game is. Sk8land is not a port by any means, rather a complete, original title for the DS that takes the content of Wasteland as a source of inspiration. If anything, Sk8land picks up the Hawk series from the peculiar diversion it has found itself on, and sets it back on the main road.
First and foremost, the pretties. It looks splendid. Rather than attempting to awkwardly mimic the new-fangled graphics of the consoles, here is a completely new look - a cel-shaded 3D cartoon world, with pleasing friendly caricatures. For the most part it's quick, smooth and detailed, hitting 60fps without the machine even emitting a plip of smoke. Special tricks are accompanied by pleasing purple streaks, and while it's all scripted animation, your avatar's bails look pleasantly ragdollish. It's one of those, "wow, I didn't know the DS could even do this!" moments.
The 3D world means that Vicarious is finally able to do what it has clearly always wanted: make a classic Tony Hawk game properly. If you are wise like me, you'll hark back to the good old days of yore when the trains ran on time and a Tony Hawk game was essentially a complex platform game, set in refined locations, without any of this getting-off-your-skateboard nonsense that infests a post-GTA world. Sk8land seems to rather remarkably pick out the best bits of the recent Hawk titles, while behaving with the candour of the Pro Skater lot. It handles like them, has the physics of them, and is as engagingly daft as them. It's really rather surprisingly good. Neversoft must be feeling a bit silly.
The setting is LA, various regions linked together by tunnels. But not the rubbish pretend-o-tunnels of Wasteland that feigned seamless links to an explorable city, but were really just rubbish playable loading sections. They're good, honest load-points like your grandfather used to use. New sections are accessed by completing a set number of tasks in the currently available areas, whether in the Story mode, or the now obligatory - but in this case fantastic - Classic mode. Story mode runs with a similar theme to Wasteland, but without all the boring old "country bumpkin making good" gibberish. Instead you're an unknown skater, noticed by Mr Hawk himself as someone of interest, and together with local aspiring cartoonist Mindy, set out to raise enough money to renovate an old favourite skatepark that has fallen into disrepair.
This is achieved by performing a range of stunts, chores or challenges for the characters scattered about the streets of the various city areas, who reward you with cash for hilariously silly reasons. A street cleaner is in a hurry (despite perpetually standing still), and needs you to knock some newspapers free from a railing with your grind. For this he'll pay you... $250. Um. But this matters not a bit, and in fact gains a semblance of reason as you progress, with skaters finding out about your restoration project, and wanting to donate cash in return for your actions.
Once enough has been done to move on, sexy Mindy appears, and with her crazed enthusiasm informs you of a pro-skater in the area who wants you to complete some task, after which he'll sell you a new piece of scenery for the Sk8land project. Once bought, the new area becomes available, and a new set of challenges is available, building up to the ultimate goal of a competition in your own built skatepark.
None of the tasks are particularly tough, although sometimes you'll be asked to reach a ledge that your stats can't quite touch. Which raises an interesting feature; rather than the Pro Skater or GBA games' assigning of earned points to various stats, improvements are made by achievements in that particular skill. Want to up your manual abilities? Then you'll need to successfully manual for so many seconds. Get better air? Then chalk up a certain number of grab tricks in a single combo.
This latter task is made easier by the Focus Mode, which becomes available once you've got the traditional Special Meter maxed. It enters a slo-mo mode that allows you to hammer away at the buttons far more efficiently to pull of far more sick tricks. (Man, I'm so down with the parlance of the young people). Along with special tricks available when the Special Meter is full, the Focus is switched on by buttons that appear on the touch-screen. Otherwise filled with an extremely helpful map of the area, these occasional buttons are an ingenious use of the screen, meaning the limited number of pushables on the DS compared to a PS2 controller is irrelevant. Down the right side of the screen appear chunky icons for elaborate stunts, changing according to your actions. They're easily in reach of your thumbs, and don't distract attention from the action on the top screen.
Those Olde Timey Classics
I not-very-secretly prefer the Classic mode. While there's light-hearted fun to be had free-styling your way around the cities, picking up timed chores at your leisure, there's something extremely satisfying about using the same environments for the two-minute adrenaline bursts. All the usuals are there: collecting SKATE and COMBO, finding the increasingly obscure 'secret tape', and grinding, ollie-ing or flip-tricking your way across gaps, landmarks and scenery. Such tasks sit far more naturally in this mode than the awkward excuses given for their inclusion in the Story.
There's a spattering of DS treats as well. You can craft your own skateboard design, or graffiti tag, using the impressively capable little paint program and your stylus. See the screenshot for my effort. Annoyingly, this seems a little buggy, randomly drawing annoying lines across the screen without my doing so, but, after persisting with the undo button, there were pleasing results. There's also the fantastic, and fantastically silly, ability to record your own sound effects for various incidents. My version now responds to any bail with "You dick."
And of course Sk8land is one of only three currently available games with the DS' Wi-Fi Connection capabilities wired in. Get online and you can engage in community sharing of board designs and upload high scores onto the game's website, and of course take part in multiplayer games. Limited to two-player only, these consist of four different game types that all essentially boil down to two players on a park at once, competing for the best score. Not having got hold of Mario Kart yet, it was tremendously exciting to see another player appear on my DS screen. It was like the first time I networked my PC to play Doom with a friend, via serial cable. We kept looking back and forth at each other's screen, in disbelief that we appeared on theirs. These multiplayer games are short-lived fun, but fun all the same.
Oh, and the sound! The DS keeps pulling tricks out of its sleeves, and while it's fairly obvious it can do it I suppose, it was a huge surprise to hear Green Day singing to me from those little speakers. There are thirteen tracks selected from the Wasteland soundtrack, and they're not exactly fabulous, but they are beautifully blended by the machine. And while you'll probably switch them off after hearing everything twice, it was still exciting that they were on that tiny little cartridge. It's the future, man.
Also nice for the ears are the cute conversations between Tony Hawk and Mindy. Hawk's cameod in enough projects now to sound comfortable, and their daft banter sounds splendid. All the regulars have also turned out to record snippets of conversation, including Tony Alva, Bam Margera, Rodney Mullen and Bob Burnquist, adding an important authenticity.
Problems? Well, there's nothing here that you haven't already done before in Hawk's games a number of times, and the faithful recreation of the familiar controls means that the endless obligatory tutorials are somewhat tiresome. It does seem odd that a game that's quite so easy should have a "Kid Mode" that even further simplifies things. An "Adult Mode" would have been appreciated, ramping up (ha) the challenges a bit for the veteran. But you know, not that kind of Adult Mode. That would be weird.
There's also a slight issue in terms of the repetitive nature of the environments. Of course, ramped-up streets are a far more realistic setting for the unrealistic super-skateboarding, but still, excellent imaginative locations like the airport or shopping mall of earlier games are missed.
So what you've got is a really solid rendition of what made those early Tony Hawk games great, but on your faithful friend, the DS. It's smart and sassy, and it looks far better than you could possibly expect (don't trust the lying screenshots - they come alive in motion). It's got the novelty of Wi-Fi, the cleverness to implement the touch screen in yet another original way, and the trusty exaggerated skateboard physics that make this one of the best platform series around (no arguing). And it features the voice of Tony Hawk telling me how great a skater I am, and the voice of me calling myself a dick.